Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Flying Blind

Dark days: Singed by the special prosecutor and rattled by the Harriet Miers mess, Team Bush is in turmoil.

By Howard Fineman and Richard Wolffe


Nov. 7, 2005 issue - The mood in the White House last Friday afternoon was grim, but eerily quiet. Dick Cheney was gone, off in Georgia giving yet another apocalyptic terrorism speech to yet another military crowd. The president, just back from his own rally-the-troops address, was eager to chopper to Camp David for the weekend. But, in the small dining room adjoining the Oval Office, he was doing something uncharacteristic: watching live news on TV.

"I don't read books, I read people," George W. Bush once said, half in jest, and so the figure on the screen spoke volumes to him: the Irish-American altar-boy visage; the off-the-rack attire; the meticulous, yet colloquial speech, a blend of the U.S. Code, Jimmy Stewart and baseball. Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, Bush said to his aides, "is a very serious guy." And so was the charge he laid out: that I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, the vice president's right-hand man, had lied repeatedly under oath about what might well have been a White House effort to vindictively tip reporters about the identity of a CIA agent whose husband was a critic of the Iraq war. Libby has denied wrongdoing, and his lawyer vowed a vigorous defense. But Bush, an aide indicated, was as impressed by Fitzgerald's case as by the man who brought it. "The indictment speaks for itself," said the aide, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the situation.

In a capital that fashions its gallows out of court papers, Fitzgerald also made news for what he didn't do—and for whom he didn't propose to try to hang. Importantly, he did not indict Libby for disclosing the identity of the agent, Valerie Plame, to reporters. In a tour-de-force press conference (Bush saw the initial 20 minutes), the prosecutor said that he couldn't conclude whether to take that step in part because Libby had covered his motives in lies. Nor, as of last Friday, had Fitzgerald decided whether to indict Karl Rove, the top presidential aide and close friend, who also talked to journalists about Plame and her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson. There was relief but no joy inside the White House at these dodged bullets. "This is a White House in turmoil right now," said a senior aide, one of many who declined to speak on the record at a time of peril and paranoia. As for Rove, the aide said, some insiders believed that he had "behaved, if not criminally, then certainly unethically."

Like decent dukes in a Shakespeare play, special prosecutors tend to appear in the last act—the second term—of presidencies. But rather than impose peace, federal investigators tend to immobilize, if not destroy, the administrations they pry apart. And this probe, White House insiders know, hits an administration already reeling from a host of problems: criticism of Bush's handling of hurricane disasters; the botched—and, last week, withdrawn—nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court; the rising U.S. death toll in Iraq, which has passed the 2,000 mark; the fracturing of the president's carefully constructed but no longer faithful conservative base, and the lack of a salable, uplifting second-term agenda to leaven the Manichean bleakness of the war on terror.

Now Fitzgerald's probe is aimed at the operational inner sanctum of Bush's "war presidency"—and, by extension, at Bush's anchoring view of what his administration has been about since the 9/11 attacks. As he prosecutes "Cheney's Cheney" for perjury, false statements and obstruction, Fitzgerald will inevitably have to shine a light on the machinery that sold the Iraq war and that sought to discredit critics of it, particularly Joseph Wilson. And that, in turn, could lead to Cheney and to the Cheney-run effort to make Iraq the central battleground in the war on terror. As if that weren't dramatic enough, the Libby trial—if there is one—will feature an unprecedented, high-stakes credibility contest between a top government official and the reporters he spoke to: Tim Russert of NBC, Judith Miller of The New York Times and Matt Cooper of Time magazine. Another likely witness: Cheney himself. White House officials were admonished not to have any contact with Libby about the investigation. That presumably includes the vice president.

Just as the prosecutor's role has become familiar, so are the epigrams and questions that accompany his arrival on the scene, subpoenas in hand. Once again, it appears that the old cliche applies: it's not the crime but the cover-up. And once again, the hoary "Howard Baker Questions" are being asked: what did he know and when did he know it? This time, however, the target isn't the president, protected for now by his reputation as a rigorous delegator, but Cheney, viewed as the most powerful vice president in modern times.

Perhaps it's no surprise, therefore, that at least some administration officials—speaking on background, of course—have begun retroactively to dismiss Cheney's role. Even if they are rewriting history, the revision is politically significant—and an ominous sign for Cheney in a city where power is the appearance of power. As an aide now tells it, Cheney's influence began to wane from the start of the second term and effectively came to an end as the Fitzgerald investigation gained momentum in recent months. "You can say that the influence of the vice president is going to decrease, but it's hard to decrease from zero," said a senior official sympathetic to Cheney's policies. Even on foreign policy, said a senior Bush aide, the veep has been eclipsed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who now has the president's ear and works effectively with her successor as national-security adviser, Stephen Hadley. Bush has grown more confident, aides say, having jettisoned the Cheney training wheels. "The president has formulated a lot of his own views," said an aide, "and has a very firm idea of what he wants to do and accomplish with his foreign policy."

For the self-described "war president," that idea is steadfast devotion to confronting the global evil of "Islamist radicalism," and to "completing the mission" in Iraq. But repeating the antiterrorism incantation isn't enough. Last week the president gave perhaps his most eloquent speech on the topic, but it seemed repetitive and out of touch with public opinion and the on-the-ground realities of Iraq. For a political figure who rose to power on the strength of strategic "rollouts," Bush seemed to be oddly lacking a grand plan.

There is, as yet, no master plan to breathe life into the second term with dramatic new initiatives. Social Security reform—which was supposed to be the grand, defining initiative—remains as dead as it was the moment Bush introduced it. Instead, he now will talk about immigration reform—no sure winner with the conservative base—and tax reform, which may be. He will push for federal budget cuts, but probably not enough to satisfy the deficit hawks in his own Republican Party. (He may even have to fight a rear-guard action to save the prescription-drug benefit he championed: Sen. John McCain is assembling a coalition to delay its implementation by two years to save $80 billion.) "Now isn't the time for a long ball," said a senior aide. "It's time for simple blocking and tackling. We have to demonstrate that we can make sound, competent decisions."

That won't be as easy as it sounds, given the decision Bush was facing: whom to nominate to the high court in place of his White House counsel. Conservatives, emboldened by their successful effort to derail Miers, were ready to pounce on the president if the replacement was anyone less than their Scalia-like ideal. But if Bush tried to satisfy them, the Democrats—whose chief strategy remains the sincere expression of disdain—were ready to decry the choice as a shameless cave-in to the religious right. Ensconced at Camp David in sunny, crisp weather, he sifted his options. Cheney doesn't go up there often. Last weekend was no exception.

With Holly Bailey